Concerned About Nuclear Weapons Potential, John F. Kennedy Pushed for Inspection of Israel Nuclear Facilities

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tags: nuclear weapons, Israel, JFK



President John F. Kennedy worried that Israel’s nuclear program was a potentially serious proliferation risk and insisted that Israel permit periodic inspections to mitigate the danger, according to declassified documents published today by the National Security Archive, Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.  Kennedy pressured the government of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to prevent a military nuclear program, particularly after stage-managed tours of the Dimona facility for U.S. government scientists in 1961 and 1962 raised suspicions within U.S. intelligence that Israel might be concealing its underlying nuclear aims.  Kennedy’s long-run objective, documents show, was to broaden and institutionalize inspections of Dimona by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

On 30 May 1961, Kennedy met Ben-Gurion in Manhattan to discuss the bilateral relationship and Middle East issues. However, a central (and indeed the first) issue in their meeting was the Israeli nuclear program, about which President Kennedy was most concerned.   According to a draft record of their discussion, which has never been cited, and is published here for the first time, Ben-Gurion spoke “rapidly and in a low voice” and “some words were missed.”  He emphasized the peaceful, economic development-oriented nature of the Israeli nuclear project. Nevertheless the note taker, Assistant Secretary of State Philips Talbot, believed that he heard Ben-Gurion mention a “pilot” plant to process plutonium for “atomic power” and also say that “there is no intention to develop weapons capacity now.” Ben-Gurion tacitly acknowledged that the Dimona reactor had a military potential, or so Talbot believed he had heard.  The final U.S. version of the memcon retained the sentence about plutonium but did not include the language about a “pilot” plant and  “weapons capacity.”

 The differences between the two versions suggest the difficulty of preparing accurate records of meetings. But whatever Ben-Gurion actually said, President Kennedy was never wholly satisfied with the insistence that Dimona was strictly a peaceful project. Neither were U.S. intelligence professionals. A recently declassified National Intelligence Estimate on Israel prepared several months after the meeting, and published here for the first time, concluded that “Israel may have decided to undertake a nuclear weapons program. At a minimum, we believe it has decided to develop its nuclear facilities in such a way as to put it into a position to develop nuclear weapons promptly should it decide to do so.” This is the only NIE where the discussion of Dimona has been declassified in its entirety.




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